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Opinion Rebuilding safety means rebuilding some families

A view of a D.C. police car. (Peter Hermann/The Washington Post)

A reader, Leroy Swain, took me to task for stating in last week’s column on juvenile crime that I didn’t want to start a “blaming and shaming game about unstable families in our community.”

Swain called to my attention a Nov. 29 article in The Post about a teen killed in the city over the Thanksgiving weekend who had previously been shot three times before. Swain wrote, “From the story, the mother had not seen him, so [inquiring] minds would want to know — Why not?”

Indeed, the article did report that the youth’s mother said she had talked to her son on Thanksgiving but hadn’t seen him in recent days, and that she wasn’t in the area when he was first shot in 2018. Swain also cited a statement in the story by D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III: “There is nothing within the police department toolbox where there is a program we would offer for people who have been shot multiple times.”

“Today,” Swain wrote, “the black family is suffering from the social ill of nonexistence.” He added, “The focus to solving a problem is to acknowledge it, and you can’t get around it without holding parents accountable. ... [If that is] blaming and shaming, then bring it on.”

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To Swain, and maybe to many others, yes, I do at times pull up short on articles that hint at child neglect or maltreatment in a family. Not that I am unaware of living in a city where some children are being neglected by the people who brought them into this world. Not that I don’t know there are kids who aren’t getting from their mothers and fathers the food, clothing and shelter that they need, that essential adult supervision is missing in their young lives. But I have been at this business long enough — as a journalist, a parent and part of a family tree with limbs stretching from Penn State to the state pen — to know that snap judgments are risky when it comes to families. So, I tread carefully without all the facts.

But there’s no missing the point that we have children living in dysfunctional families.

I also read the Nov. 2 article about the 14-year-old boy with a magnetic personality, who was loved by all, who was the apple of his father’s eye, and who was shot and died at a nearby hospital. “Oh God, I’m never going to see my son again,” the father cried.

I read in the same story that the father said the last time he saw his son was in May 2021, when the two went to a seafood restaurant for his birthday dinner. The father said he moved to New York a day later. His son, it turns out, had been shot and wounded on the same block on Oct. 9. The father said he didn’t know that until after his son was killed.

There are also articles that aren’t as headline-grabbing because nobody died. Still, those stories suggest problems from within.

Think Thanksgiving Day. Think family, food, smiles and laughter. Think after-dinner time in the 300 block of I Street SW.

That’s when three suspects approached a victim, took the victim’s property (including, reportedly, some food in Tupperware) and fled the scene. Responding police arrested and charged two 12- and 13-year-old girls with robbery.

The 12- and 13-year-old girls are in the same trouble as the 14-year-old girl who was arrested after allegedly stealing and then crashing a car with a baby inside a few weeks ago.

Such stories occur almost daily. I have written ad nauseam about juvenile justice. Gone on and on about fractured family structures where nurturing and successful adult male role models seem to be in short supply. And I have railed about millions spent on palliative programs aimed at reducing the pain caused by troubled youths in troubled families in troubled neighborhoods.

There are no panaceas. But also no need for a code of silence. I stipulate the existence of historical, economic and racial forces that work against the nuclear Black family. But I also know the heart and soul of our survival is our stick-to-itiveness. Can’t speak for the rest of the country, but building and rebuilding families is a foundational task for this city.

Think not?

Think I Street SW on Thanksgiving evening.